High court to hear prayers case

At issue is whether prayers said to open government meetings are constitutional.

By Robert Dilday

The Supreme Court agreed May 20 to hear a case centering on whether sectarian prayers at the beginning of official government meetings violate the First Amendment — an issue which has roiled county governing and school boards in the Mid-Atlantic for years.

Justices said they will review an appeals court ruling which found a town council in upstate New York at odds with the Constitution after 11-years of offering primarily Christian prayers at the opening of public meetings.

A lower court had upheld the council’s practice, but the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, saying the council should have found members of other faiths to pray.

Two residents of the town of Greece, a suburb of Rochester, who were not Christian said they felt marginalized by the prayers and challenged the practice. They are represented by Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, told the Washington Post, “A town council meeting isn’t a church service, and it shouldn’t seem like one.”

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David Cortman, senior counsel of Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing the town, told the Post the framers of the Constitution prayed while drafting the Bill of Rights. “Americans today should be as free as the Founders were to pray,” he said.

Since at least 2011, sectarian prayers by government bodies in Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia counties have faced legal challenges. In two — Forsyth County, N.C., and Pittsylvania County, Va. — courts ruled that, while official opening prayers are permissible, the First Amendment requires that they be non-sectarian.

The Supreme Court case,Town of Greece vs. Galloway, will be argued this fall.